Thailand suffered a heart-breaking opening to the final round of their 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying campaign as a late penalty from Saudi Arabia saw them slip to a controversial 1-0 defeat in Riyadh on Thursday night.
Kiatisuk Senamuang's side had been the better side for much of the Group B game and created some fine chances. But, with Thailand having been denied two penalties in the first half, referee Fu Ming awarded the hosts a spot kick with less than 10 minutes remaining and Nawaf Al-Abid struck the winning goal. It was cruel on the Thais, particularly as Sarach Yooyen's foul for the penalty was needless.
The Muang Thong United midfielder was then red-carded at full-time for taking his protests too far.
But the performance, in a difficult fixture, offers hope that the War Elephants will be a threat to their Group B rivals through this final stage of qualifying on the road to Russia. Teerasil Dangda was outstanding up front as the underdog visitors took the game to their rivals.
The Thai lineup was much as expected, though Pokklaw Anan was preferred to Charyl Chappuis in central midfield in a change enforced by injury to Sanrawat Dechmitr.
The game had a scrappy opening, but the Thais had the first clear sight of goal in the seventh minute. Theerathon Bunmathan made a fine break down the left and cut the ball back to Teerasil on the edge of the box. The striker side-stepped a couple of defenders but his low left-footed shot was easily held by Yasser Al-Mosaleim.
There was a strong claim for a Thailand penalty in the 15th minute when Osama Hawsawi blocked Teerasil's run when coming to challenge for a Theerathon corner. There was a muted protest from the Thais, but replays clearly showed the defender impeding the striker, with no interest in the ball.
The hosts tested Kawin Thamsatchanan for the first time in the 20th minute when Salman Al-Muwashar fired in a shot from 20 yards but the keeper made a straightforward save.
A minute later, referee Fu Ming made a hugely controversial call when he denied Thailand a penalty again. A smart ball from Chanathip Songkrasin found Teerasil sprinting clear. The striker touched the ball past Al-Mosaeleim before going down. A free-kick on the edge of the box was awarded and a yellow card was shown to the goalkeeper, though any foul had clearly taken place inside the area.
Replays suggested that there had been minimal contact from the keeper and Teerasil had possibly tripped himself up, indicating two errors of judgment from the officials.
Sarach's resulting free-kick was well blocked by the Saudi wall before the home side had a penalty call of their own. Tanaboon Kesarat challenged Naif Hazazi in the Thai area and, while there may have been slight contact, the striker's preposterous dive failed to impress the referee.
With Thailand having had the better of the opening stages, Saudi Arabia responded with a more physical approach and started to impose themselves on the game.
But Thailand were next to get an effort on target when Pokklaw struck from long range, though, again, there was an easy catch for the keeper.
The visitors had an excellent opportunity to create a chance on the counter attack when Chanathip ran at the defence with options to his left and right. But the playmaker took too long to make up his mind and was eventually crowded out.
The first opportunity of the second half fell to Thailand and it was Teerasil again who threatened. The Muang Thong United striker picked up the ball 25 yards out, drove into the box on the left and fired in a powerful shot that Al-Mosaleim did well to hold onto.
In the 55th minute, some fancy footwork from Chanathip created space on the edge of the box for Kroekrit Thaweekarn but the winger pulled his shot well wide.
Saudi had their best chance yet two minutes later when Omar Othman headed just over the bar from a corner, with Kawin in no man's land.
But the Thais came even closer to opening the scoring on the hour mark. There was patient build-up play involving Sarach and Teerasil before Theerathon was released on the left. The Thailand skipper whipped in an excellent cross and Teerasil met it with a diving header, which was kept out by a superb save from Al-Mosaleim.
Bangkok Glass winger Sarawut Masuk was brought on for Mongkol Tossakrai as Kiatisuk tried to inject fresh legs into his team for the final 25 minutes.
There was a let-off for the Thais in the 67th minute. Hazazi challenged Tanaboon for a deep cross. Neither player made clean contact with the ball but it broke fortuitously into the arms of a grateful Kawin.
The away side were beginning to tire and Sarach had to head clear from the six-yard area before Kawin made an outstanding save from Fahad Al-Muwallad's powerful 25-yard drive.
Substitute Tana Chanabut then squandered a fine opportunity for Thailand after being released by Teerasil on the left. The Port FC forward waited for support instead of going for goal and was dispossessed in the end.
Another promising move saw Teerasil drive at the Saudi defence again, exchanging passes with Chanathip before being denied by a last-ditch challenge.
But disaster struck for Thailand in the 81st minute when the Saudis were awarded a penalty. There was little danger when Al-Muwallad was forced to turn away from goal but, as he protected the ball, Sarach foolishly lunged in. The challenge was innocuous, but naive, the substitute duly went down and the penalty was awarded.
Al-Abid confidently converted the spot kick, sending Kawin the wrong way.
Chappuis replaced Anan for the final five minutes in Kiatisuk's last throw of the dice. And there was further heartache for the Thais when it appeared that they had equalised in added time, but Tristan Do's header from Chanathip's cross was offside. The final blow came when Sarach saw red for dissent after the full-time whistle.
Thailand now have to pick themselves up for the game against Japan, who suffered a shock 2-1 home loss to UAE, in Bangkok on Tuesday.